Youth Engagement, An Asset For Our Community

By Natalia Clark Hentschel

“The true value of youth engagement lies in its impact on the overall quality of life of the community.” 

– Cindy Carlson, Director of Hampton Coalition for Youth


Natalia Clark Hentschel

Natalia Clark Hentschel

The importance of engaging youth in community development and policy making processes is increasingly recognized by all levels of government. Some cities have created departments that are focused directly on the development of youth engagement programs. These departments provide support, training, and coordination for youth-led initiatives, most commonly in the form of youth councils and commissions. In California alone, there are nearly one hundred active youth councils and commissions at the city and county levels. This advancement is underpinned by studies such as the one conducted by the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, in which local elected officials and civic leaders reported that they “see youth civic engagement as well within the purview of municipal government.”

And why not? Young people bring a fresh voice and unique knowledge base that generate innovative ideas pivotal to the success of public programs and projects. The creation and implementation of civic youth-based initiatives can also indicate a city’s commitment to embracing its youth as a key stakeholder constituency. Not only do local agencies and communities benefit from youth engagement, but the individual youth does as well. Opportunities to engage in the community allow youth to develop the necessary skills to understand how government systems function and how to communicate effectively on community issues. Their contributions result in solutions, programs, and plans that are effective and sustainable.

In considering youth engagement, it is important to remember that the same outreach activities that prove to be effective with adults may not provide the same results when applied to youth populations. So how do you go about incorporating youth engagement into your public involvement plan? Consider the following:

  • Prepare the setting. It is critical that all stakeholder groups, including youth themselves, view youth as community assets, problem solvers, and partners in making their community a better place. Incorporate youth participation activities from project kick-off to completion. 
  • Make the program relevant. Engaging youth in issues that instill excitement, are relevant to their age group, and offer opportunities to witness both short and long-term results is critical to the success of youth outreach efforts. Highlight specific project areas that resonate with youth.
  • Be mindful of potential barriers. Many barriers can limit youth participation, such as school schedules, transportation challenges, and complex information. Consider these obstacles as you develop your youth outreach program.
  • Partner with schools and community organizations. Strong partnerships with youth-serving entities can help fill gaps in resources and expertise that may be outside of a city’s or agency’s capacity. Identify community-based organizations such as non-profits, church groups and foundations to assist in youth outreach efforts.
  • Offer a variety of opportunities for meaningful participation. To name a few: Youth commissions, councils, and committees; inviting youth representatives on boards, committees or commissions; youth design charettes; media projects; and, school-based workshops.
  • Double check your toolbox. All the engagement opportunities in the world won’t ensure youth participation if youth are not aware they exist. Engage with youth through their communication channels, such as social media and web-based services.

Looking for more? Check out the National League of Cities Tools and Resources page and American Planning Association’s Kid’s Planning Toolbox for additional information on youth engagement.

This research was conducted as part of Natalia’s graduate studies in Urban Planning at the University of California Irvine and incorporated into her professional report, Promoting Effective City-Sponsored Youth Civic Engagement Programs in Santa Ana, CA.